Co-Authored by: Cheryl MacDonald & Courtney Szto
One need not look far for stereotypical portrayals of women in society. Consider this video recently posted on Buzzfeed titled “Crazy Things People Used to Believe About Women in the 1800s” (wandering wombs and bicycle face? Really?!). What’s striking about the video is its portrayal of lesbians, because while the video was trying to point out how insane it was that in the 1800s, people believed that lesbians were ‘half male,’ the video contextualized this factoid with a clip of a woman lifting weights in a gym. This may have been relevant social commentary on contemporary stereotypes of women who are athletes or lesbians who lift weights; however, if that wasn’t the intended message, it’s a bit ironic that a video meant to expose inaccurate portrayals of lesbians chose to stereotype the homonormative (masculine) lesbian body. This video got the old cognitive wheels turning.
What do these assumptions about strong women say about us as a society?
Almost as if it was fate, one of the next videos to go viral in Canada was the one created by the UBC women’s hockey team (above). It is an attempt to challenge the stereotypical and inaccurate questions often posed to the female players who choose to participate in this (still) male-dominated sport. The video is amusing and successful at highlighting some of the uneducated, uninformed, and misguided perceptions about female hockey players by bringing up issues of low viewership and media representation, lack of pay, and traditional gender norms. Examples of questions the UBC players tackle include, “Do you wear figure skates?” and “Do you wear pink gear?” The players sarcastically respond with inferences about being physically fragile, wearing pink helmets only when they want to “feel pretty”, and crying when their coach yells at them.
On the one hand, this is a great example of the power of participatory media, whereby we no longer need high-powered executives to speak about issues that are important to us; we can upload our thoughts to YouTube and have our voices heard in a matter of minutes. On the other hand, the UBC video should prompt some broader questions about notions of “acceptable femininity” amongst female athletes. To illustrate, American MMA fighter, Ronda Rousey’s growing popularity, has been groundbreaking for representations of women in sport. She has been able to straddle the worlds of masculinity and femininity by pounding people into oblivion for her day job and posing for SI Swimsuit issues in her off-time. In a recent viral video, Rousey explained that her mother raised her to be anything but a DNB: a do nothing bitch. She explains that the DNB is:
the kind of chick that just tries to be pretty and taken care of by somebody else. That’s why I think it’s hilarious, like, when people say that my body is masculine or something like that. It’s like listen, just because my body was developed for a purpose other than fucking millionaires doesn’t mean it’s masculine…there’s not a single muscle in my body that isn’t for a purpose, because I’m not a do-nothin’ bitch.
Additionally, when asked about her femininity, Rousey stated that she thinks her femininity is “bad ass” and she likes who she is. Athletic women the world over stood in ovation for Rousey, because she has also “been upfront about struggling with body image issues and an eating disorder, and the quote is, in part, a powerful statement about rejecting cultural expectations placed on women’s bodies.” And let’s face it; we know exactly whom Rousey is referring to. These are the women that make reality television the trashy, guilty pleasure that it is today.
However, in Rousey’s attempt to explain the value of her body and her mantra she has thrown a whole lot of women under the patriarchal bus, and so have the UBC players. This is a catch-22 that many female athletes have found themselves in ever since sport has opened its doors to girls and women. In order to make the athletic female body more valued, it must be distanced from everything that is devalued in society: femininity, weakness, fragility, domesticity. In other words, if we picture gender value as a ladder with your Chris Hemsworth/Lebron James types at the top of said ladder, and your Paris Hiltons at the bottom of the ladder, many female athletes have resorted to stepping on the backs of their “feminine” sisters in an act of self-preservation. As Sydnie Jones, for Women’s MMA explains:
Rousey’s rhetoric is not exactly feminist, and there are elements within the ‘DNB’ philosophy that are regressive. It’s predicated on the basis that women are doing something wrong and should be ostracized and castigated for it….Rousey’s rhetoric is often founded on an apparent belief that some women are ‘better’ than others, based on nebulous, sliding criteria determined by her current preoccupations. And in the case of the DNB phenomenon, Rousey isn’t saying anything new. In fact, she’s reiterating the long-standing condemnation of women our culture has decreed ‘gold diggers,’ a superficial vilification of the individual rather than a criticism of the societal ill at the root.
Thus, in order to be valued as a human being, female athletes often resort to putting down the same women that are seen as disposable by the patriarchy – those most feminine.
The problem here is that femininity continues to be perceived as an inherent weakness. Masculinity and femininity are pitted against each other in a zero-sum game, in which having traits from both camps is confusing to society. Courtney broached this topic a few years ago with her reflection about pink jerseys and how they are, essentially, positioned as the anti-jersey and used as a hurdle to solidarity. Moreover, the show Hockey Wives isn’t really helping our common understanding of femininity and heteronormativity because it plays to the DNB trope of which Rousey speaks. In other words, those “DNBs”are doubly oppressed by the men who perceive them as nothing more than animated sex toys, and the women who reproduce this ideology. As a result, the patriarchy is supported by the very women who are trying to buck its constraints.
Understandably, the intended message created by these female athletes is that girls and women should be strong, confident, intelligent, and unapologetic about their sporting prowess. This is why Rousey is hailed by many as an empowering female role model, and the UBC video has been viewed well over 100,000 times since being posted on November 25th. The Buzzfeed video, Rousey, and the UBC hockey players are all attempting to make clear, and rightfully so, that girls and women, especially female athletes, deserve more recognition and less criticism. With that said, we have to question why all of these parties feel the need to make their points at the expense of other women who live and experience femininity in different ways. Especially in the case of UBC hockey video, what is wrong with wearing pink gear and not wanting to break a nail? If you have ever broken or chipped a nail (of any length), you know it sucks. Admittedly, it’s annoying (and exhausting) to be the center of misinformed conceptions regarding women’s sports, but we have to find a more balanced way to communicate our realities without putting other people down. We live our life in shades of grey (not necessarily the kinky kind), yet we commonly resort to black and white when we are defining who we are not. Unfortunately, in this particular attempt to expand the conception of “woman,” this kind of distancing and internal misogyny only serves to further divide any kind of progress for women’s empowerment.